Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth is a thoroughly researched and enthralling biography of a writer long underrated, not least by those embarrassed by his louche life and lack of unambiguous allegiance to Jewishness, let alone Zionism. Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Galicia, where it was wise for Jews to keep their sidelocked, black-brim-med heads down. The poorest people were “see-traders”—Hasidim ready to sell anything they saw. (While smuggling and crossing the border, they spread blankets to defeat footprints in winter snow.) Clever Joseph’s prize-winning essay at school was called “On Opportunism and Compromise.” What more apt topic for an examinee set to become a forever unsettled journalist, travel writer, and novelist?
Cosmopolitan Vienna was the place to go and shine. Assimilation to German courtesies, accent, and language served to efface the uncompromising, Yiddish-speaking provincialism that Roth would later revisit with morbid rue. Keiron Pim, a young British biographer, defines him as “double throughout his life.” The charge of duality or duplicity has been leveled at so many Jews in so many contexts that it all but smacks of a collective accusation. Yet what better equipment for a writer? In the field of European literature, the fruit of Jewish irresolution has been a rich crop, dialogue its flower: Proust, Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler, Italo Svevo (Aron Hector Schmitz), Vasily Grossman, and many others.
In his first single year as a Viennese journalist, from April 1919, Roth wrote 140 pieces for Der Neue Tag, many under the byline Josephus. Pim reads this as an allusion to Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian (in Greek) of the disastrous war of 66–70 C.E. which led to the Jews being dispossessed both of Jerusalem and of the individual state refounded by the Maccabees. The Josephs were alike as witnesses of catastrophe, current and imminent.1
Austrian patriot, nostalgic Galician, Parisian expatriate, dandy and down-and-out, always on the move, Roth was his own most mutable, memorable creation. Buried in a Catholic cemetery, apostasy played little part in his versatility, though he did come to fancy a tipple on Communion wine. At his early peak, he was a bespoke-tailored cock of Vienna’s Herrenhof café, his arrogant wit dispensed in the accent of a distinguished Austrian. By his side, his bride, beautiful Friedl Reichler, was a docile emblem of his having made it. Her decline into bedridden misery would haunt but never detain him. As with Alfred Tennyson’s Sir Lancelot, faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.
Success stimulated his facility but never blinded him to the grim aftermath of the Great War that reduced Austria to the rump of the ramshackle empire of long-lived Franz-Josef. “My so-called subjectivity,” he wrote, “is in the highest degree objective. I can smell things another won’t be able to see for another ten years.” A true boast: He is the first journalist known to have mentioned Adolf Hitler in print, as early as 1923.
A year later, he was reporting on the cortege of veterans following the funeral of Jana Josa, who had addressed the Union of Disabled Veterans of the Polish Republic and, for a finale, shot himself in the head. Another ominous year later, the Social Democrat German president, Friedrich Ebert, died and the antique Marshal Hindenburg, author of the stab-in-the-back excuse for Germany’s defeat in 1918, was elected in his place. Though he continued to write for the German press, left and right, Roth took the train for Paris. He described himself as a “hotelpatriot”: “I s—t on furniture. I hate houses.” Hotels let you come and go whenever you want.
The last word in his early novel, Hotel Savoy, is “America.” For Roth, the New World was a land of greater promise than Palestine. Zionism struck him from the first as a delusion and later as some kind of cousin to National Socialism, a fantasy of muscular solidarity for a people whose strength lay in the vigor, when they had it, of disparate genius: “In seeking a homeland of their own…700,000 idiots of Zion are rebelling against their deeper nature.… Not only are they not cleverer [than other people], they are even sometimes more stupid.” His ability to smell the future here eluded him.
Roth’s 1932 masterpiece, The Radetzky March, is a lean trilogy of ironic nostalgia for the triumphant, ramshackle Austria-Hungary of his youth. As the 1930s goose-stepped toward catastrophe, he attached improbable hope to the restoration of Otto von Habsburg (a good man, time would tell) as a bulwark against the demonic Adolf. Meanwhile, he found himself intermittently at peace in France. He saw Avignon, once the seat of dissident popes, as the symbol of Roman Catholic tolerance and, above all, pan-European culture. He hoped, seriously, that after a large donation, conveyed by Louis Hagen, a convert who had become papal chamberlain, the Vatican would ban communicant Catholics from belonging to the heathen Nazi Party. The arrival in 1939, of the collusive Eugenio Pacelli who, as Pope Pius XII, had already shut down the middle-of-the-road German Catholic newspaper to accommodate the Führer, put an end to any such fantasy.
A prolonged visit to the USSR in 1926 had collapsed Roth’s illusion, fostered by the brief eminence of Trotsky, that anti-Semitism could be purged by Communism. Having listened to the cliché-ridden discourse of young comrades incapable of forming a simple honest sentence after being trained never to think for themselves, he recurred to royalism, to the disdain of his accidental fellow-traveller Walter Benjamin. The sententious Benjamin would declare Roth displeasing to look at as he himself continued to lug his Red illusions all the way through the 1930s to his own suicidal terminus at Portbou, on the Franco-Spanish border, in early 1940.
Roth did not live so long but continued, as his fortunes collapsed into boozy penury, to produce works of savage irony. Self-pitying but never whining, he continued to read the world sans illusions. From the Hotel Jacob, on the Left Bank, he wrote to the still affluent Stefan Zweig: “Hell reigns. The barbarians have taken over.” He warned his patient benefactor that his “serene, seemingly elevated” manner would be no protection: “They will burn our books and mean us.” Zweig’s own illusion of immunity ended in his fugitive suicide in Brazil in 1942. Roth had already been dead three years.
Joseph Roth is worthily pieced together by Keiron Pim as the scarred monument of lost cosmopolitan culture. What new rough beasts slouch towards wherever they will make their Bethlehem? Meanwhile the shards of civilization remain in the custody of on-the-makers, sell-out professors, and show-me-the-money mega-journalists. Are we not lucky, as some people say, to have lived so long?
1 Pim has it that the original Josephus sided with the Romans. The truth is more complicated. First a Jewish general, then captured, he did indeed go over to the Romans, both to save his neck and, more important, to devote himself to calling on the Jerusalem Jews to reject the Zealots in their city and come to terms while they still had the chance. His abiding concern was the preservation of the city and Herod the Great’s temple as the fulcrum of Judaism. Driven, in disastrous fact, finally to seek sanctuary in Rome, Josephus wrote a history in which there is no sort of call for “assimilation,” apostasy never.
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